East Hampton Village Mayor Paul Rickenbach vividly recalls the anguish he felt on 9/11: His daughter, Karen Mesiha, was working in the South Tower — and for hours, he did not know if she was alive.
Mesiha, who worked in the human resources department of the law firm Brown & Wood, was one of the lucky survivors – but the hours and minutes were endless until Rickenbach and his wife Jean got the news.
“We heard what had happened, like so many others, on the radio and on TV,” Rickenbach said. “When the jets crashed into the towers, we went through an agonizing pain.”
Once they learned of the terrorist attack, the Rickenbachs spent hours trying to get through to someone and find out if their daughter had survived.
With all lines of communication down in the area around the World Trade Center, Mesiha had no way to call home. “She lived in Park Slope at the time and she walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to get to her apartment," Rickenbach said.
“She called, and she couldn’t believe what she had just experienced,” the mayor said. “One of the partners in her firm went to my daughter and said, ‘We’re getting out of here, a plane hit the building.’” His daughter said she had to go back and get her purse, Rickenbach said. “He told her, ‘We have no time for that.’”
Recalling the tragic day, Rickenback voice was filled with emotion: “It comes back very vividly.”
It took 45 minutes for his daughter to exit down the firewall staircase, and on the way, Mesiha saw the face of a firefighter coming up the stairs, an image that has been forever etched on her memory.
Once she exited the building, Mesiha, now 49, got about an eighth of a mile away when the first tower collapsed.
After hearing the good news, Rickenbach said he and his wife looked at each other in amazement. “It was as if we had been reborn.” And, he added, “Everything else pales in comparison to the lives of your children and grandchildren.”
News of bin Laden’s death has sparked “a multitude of thoughts,” Rickenbach said. “I would hope it brings tremendous relief to parents and family members who lost a loved one.” But, he warned, “It’s not going to change the landscape. Unfortunately, somebody might step up to the plate. We have to be ever vigilant.”
In East Hampton schools, educators are working to make sure students learn of what transpired on 9/11 with an eye toward making sure it never happens again. Montauk school superintendent Jack Perna said students in the upper grades read the New York Times and will discuss bin Laden in social studies.
“It is a historical day. Teachers are discussing as the information keeps arriving and treating it within the history of events,” Thomas Lamorgese, principal of the East Hampton Middle School, said.
In Sag Harbor, hearts were heavy. Resident Doris Gronlund’s daughter Linda Gronlund was 46 when she died aboard Flight 93, where she helped fight back against terrorists who were plotting to crash the plane into the White House. Passengers changed the course of history when they managed to thwart the terrorists and crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field.
Gronlund has found solace in celebrating her daughter’s life. Young women pursuing engineering careers at MIT receive scholarships in Linda Grondlund’s name. BMW, where she worked, named a park in her honor – and last year, Gronlund’s life was remembered at a memorial and meditation service in Sag Harbor.
News of bin Laden’s death, said Gronlund, is “a chess move – that this man is now done away with.” But, she added, “Nobody in my family feels any anger or need to punish the people who were involved in all of this. We don’t have time to waste that kind of energy. Killing bin Laden doesn’t bring Linda back.”
Faith, said Gronlund, has carried her through the darkest hours. “What we’re doing now is to try and do all the good we can do, to honor her.”
Her daughter, said Gronlund, worked for BMW on the team to design a hydrogen-fueled car. “Her desire to make the world a better place was inspiration for all of us.”
Despite the tragedy of her daughter’s death, Gronlund remains touched by the acts of kindness shown her by her caring Sag Harbor neighbors – for example, a flag was placed on Route 114, where Linda Gronlund’s memorial preserve is located. “I’m touched by the kindness and gentleness of people,” Gronlund said. “We are very blessed by people really caring.”
Looking forward, Gronlund says the focus remains on helping to bring troops home, and healing wounded warriors. Instead of dwelling on her loss, Gronlund said she thinks of her daughter’s shining life. “My heart is full of the wonderful memories of the things she did,” she said.
Sag Harbor lost another light when Erica Van Acker died at the World Trade Center on 9/11, her friends say.
“She was an extraordinary woman,” said Sister Ann Marino of the Cormaria Retreat House, where a garden and a scholarship for women were created in her honor.
After hearing of bin Laden’s death, Sister Ann said, “My prayer is that it’s a finality and we may now begin to live in peace and understanding.”
Van Acker lived in Sag Harbor but worked in New York City. She was in her office on 9/11. “From what I understand, she helped many people get out of the Trade Center,” Sister Ann said.
Having met Van Acker on the Hampton Jitney, Sister Ann remembers her “as woman extraordinaire — gentle and strong. She was a woman of deep faith — what every woman would want to be like.”
East Hampton resident Hilary Knight remembers his friend Van Acker: “Erica simply glowed. It was a joy just to be in her orbit.”